This is Brooklyn Country!
By Neville Elder
British born, Neville Elder is a writer, musician and photographer and the leader the folk rock band Thee Shambels. He lives in New York City.
A casual visitor could be forgiven for thinking that the finer points of country, bluegrass and roots music is lost on the average New Yorker. The hipster ghetto of Williamsburg, might be currently overrun with scruffy students with banjos and washboards but where can you go to hear good ol’ fashioned country music? Greenwich Village? Nope. The 50’s and 60’s hub for folk, roots music and counter culture is now a parade of kebab shops and comedy clubs catering to tourists and those wide-eyed fresh-faced arrivals, recently decanted from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
In November of 2005 Tom Breihan of the Village Voice, (VV) New York’s events and entertainment guide, wrote about the first ever visit of the Country Music Association’s Awards (CMAA):
“It’s the first time the event has been held in a city outside Nashville, and New York remains possibly the only big city in America with no country station, so this is anything but a natural pairing.”
Below: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with
Brooks and Dunn at CMAA 2005
The event, a huge publicity stunt that was expected to take in $30 million in tourist dollars, was hoped by some to spark a renewed interest in the genre.
“Anyone who looks between the cracks of this temporary official hoopla will find small but thriving pockets of homegrown country.” Kurt Gottschalk
(VV. Tuesday, Nov 1 2005).
Texas born JD Duarte the leader of The Newton Gang and the engine behind the website Brooklyn Country says the country music scene in New York is alive and well and any minute will be kicking down your front door.
“I moved out to New York from Los Angeles in July 2005 to produce an album for a band from Rockland County…the project got pushed and I moved into Brooklyn and started looking for work.”
He met up with Kamara Thomas and Gordon Hartin, previously band-mates in L.A. They’d had an idea to set up a Sunday afternoon country music show.
“We moved from L.A. to NYC together.” Kamara told me. “On the way we stopped in Levelland, Texas, Gordon’s hometown, to visit his family.” Gordon’s father is John Hartin a country musician and with Gordon, he showed her around the haunts in the town where he grew up.
“It blew my mind!” She said.
John was like an encyclopedia of country music, she recalled. In fact he played a regular show as The Living Jukebox where people could request any country song from an almost infinite list and the band would play it. And kick ass, too. Impressed with the sounds and the community that sprang from the music, Kamara and Gordon came to New York thinking that maybe they could do something similar. With Kamara’s connections at The Living Room on Ludlow Street, a beautifully maintained venue with a remarkable sound, they started a Sunday afternoon show called the ‘Honky Tonk Happy Hour’.
The trouble with mainstream country music to the uninitiated, Kamara thinks, is you can’t always hear to connection to what make country music great in the first place.
Because of this there’s a general resistance to mainstream country in New York. Perhaps, because it seems like unsophisticated pop music. Kamara wanted to bring country music an audience she knew was here and expose the real songwriting and melodies that makes country, well, country. It’s not a bad idea. Arguably with an education in the roots of the genre, an appreciation of modern country could follow.
HTHR began with Kamara and Gordon pressing many of her non-country friends and musicians into service. JD recalls the first time he was asked to sit in:
“I wasn’t a singer – I was a guitar player and I didn’t play country, but Gordon said: ‘you’re from Texas! You must be able to sing country!’ I got up and sang Waylon Jennings theme from the Dukes of Hazard!”
Below: JD at the Living Room/HTHR at his first solo gig.
But what was happening was people were starting to turn on to country. People started hearing the connections.
Kamara recalls fondly those first three years of HTHR.
“Some times it was miraculous but sometimes it was a shit show!”
Kamara insisted on trying to get everyone stage time so there was a mix of abilities every week. “It’s true I had trouble trimming the fat!” she confessed.
In the end, there were so many people involved it became too much.
“We rehearsed all day Saturday for this 3 hour show, every week! It became exhausting.” Eventually, by 2008 the tornado blew itself out.
“I think what JD did (with Brooklyn Country Fair) is create a much more sustainable format.”
“I got the itch…” JD explained. “I was inspired to venture out as a musician and started looking for venues and events.”
But where could he go? The Village Voice, spurred on by the CMA’s impending arrival in 2005, decided to go out find the wellspring that was country music in New York City. They published a ‘where-to-go’ guide for fans looking for country and roots music. The list was a scattering of opportunities, mostly in venues were in unfashionable parts of the borough of Brooklyn. But there were people who wanted country music. For example: Alex Battles, who describes himself as a ‘Reluctant promoter’ on his website, was putting on the small but well attended Brooklyn Country Music Festival (BCMF) at Freddy’s Back Room that year (The next BCMF will be number eight).
With his new purpose JD, with VV article under his arm, he soon washed up at Hank’s Saloon in Boerum Hill, where he became a bartender. He met Uncle Leon from Uncle Leon and the Alibis who had been running his own website dedicated for the musicians who love to play country music in the Big Apple. The site was called ‘Brooklyn Country.com.’
Working on the existing database of artists and musicians JD, with his soon to be wife, designer Andrea Sepic and his bass player, Chet Hartin, rejigged the site. While he was out looking for country JD ran into all types of roots music flourishing independently. Much more than a website for country music, BC.com became an umbrella for all kinds of roots and country music. bluegrass, zydeco, blues are all included here on the artists page which lists 100 + bands and songwriters.
“There isn’t really a definite ‘Brooklyn Country’ sound for that reason.” JD told me. “It’s a resource for others so they don’t have to make the mistakes I made when I was getting started.”
HTHR had spawned a monster. A tribute to country music had grown into a scene. The musicians started getting serious about the music and forming their own bands.
Kamara started Ghost Gamblers (pictured she’s second from right), Serena Jean Southam started her own project and Jeff Malinowski started The Basement Band. But HTHR had become a more sporadic event and few venues perhaps only Hill Country, The Rodeo Bar and Banjo Jim’s catered for this music.
“It’s hard to get people out (to a show) when you’re sandwiched between a death metal band and a hip hop act. People just don’t want to stick around.”
Getting an audience to show up for a 40 minute set and pay $10 plus drinks isn’t all that appealing when the next show is a Metallica tribute band. He started asking the bookers if he could book the whole night. The bookers were happy because he was doing their job for them for free. So he’d book 4 country acts in a row. He learned many things from HTHR, including:
“If you have 3 hours of consistent music people will stick around and stay for 3 hours.”
JD started organizing the Brooklyn County Fair. The first BCF was March 25 at Galapagos in Williamsburg. Now Brooklyn Country has two regular shows a month including Gotham Rodeo, Brooklyn County Fair .
The thing that makes brooklyncountry.com more than a website is the way JD’s approach. He works his ass off firstly, but secondly and with considerably more cunning, he insists people get involved. Want to get your CD reviewed on Brooklyn Country? Review someones CD. Musicians review other bands releases and shows. Want to play at BCF? Show up at the events. JD is keen to reward enthusiasm with stage time.
“If I see someone showing up and getting involved at the County Fair really putting in the effort. I’ll help them. I’m not judgmental about their music. The cream will always rise to the top.”
He carries a dozen CD’s of other people’s music around with him to hand out to potential reviewers.
“I only ask if they don’t like it to give it back and I can pass it on to someone else.”
The next step is expanding the BCF and making Brooklyn Country a name to be reckoned with nationwide.
“I’m trying to encourage a grassroots do-it-yourself gig-swapping sort of thing.”
Duarte tries to invite an out of town band to play the BCF every month on the understanding they’ll return the favor in their home town. He did this when Sam Otis Hill played at BCF and Sam had the Newton Gang play with him in Boston recently.
July 9th sees the release of the sampler CD “This is Brooklyn Country Vol. 1”. JD hopes this will show the rest of the world that Brooklyn Country is not a contradiction in terms.